Archive for May 16th, 2011

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — A space shuttle took flight for the next-to-last time Monday as Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, still recovering from a gunshot wound and hidden from public view, watched her astronaut husband rocket through the clouds in a deafening roar.

Giffords and the other crew families were described as awe-struck and silent on the rooftop of the launch control center.

“Good stuff, good stuff,” she said from her wheelchair when it was quiet again, according to a congressional aide.

Giffords joined the other five astronauts’ wives and children on top of the Kennedy Space Center building to watch Endeavour’s last voyage as NASA winds down the 30-year-old shuttle program. After liftoff, there were hugs all around, the aide said.

Endeavour disappeared so quickly into the clouds that the launch manager apologized later to the hundreds of thousands who jammed nearby roads and towns.

Giffords’ husband, Mark Kelly, is Endeavour’s commander and his twin astronaut brother, Scott, gave red tulips to Giffords once he safely reached orbit.

Kelly carried her wedding ring into space, which he has done in the past. This time, she wanted something back: his ring to stay on Earth. She had it around her neck on a silver chain from a funky Arizona jewelry store that included a heart and an Arizona map.

“She was very proud. She’s always proud of Mark,” Giffords chief of staff Pia Carusone said at a press conference.

Giffords has difficulty speaking, but Carusone said Giffords’ comment after the launch was one of the congresswoman’s oft-used expressions.

That Giffords would watch the shuttle launch seemed improbable a little more than four months ago. The would-be assassin shot her in the head, critically wounding her, killing six people and injuring 12 others at a political event in her hometown of Tucson, Ariz.

The bullet pierced the left side of Giffords’ brain, affecting speech and movement on her right side.

Her doctors have said she has made remarkable progress in what will be a long recovery.

The tragic event made the relatively unknown congresswoman and astronaut America’s sweethearts, Gabby and Mark. And it drew attention to what became known as the Mark Kelly flight once he made the decision to fly while she continued rehab.

Monday’s 8:56 a.m. liftoff generated the kind of excitement seldom seen on Florida’s Space Coast on such a grand scale — despite a delay of more than two weeks from the original launch date because of an electrical problem.

This time the countdown was close to perfect, and the launch made up in sound what it lacked in visuals.

“That was four seconds of cool,” said Manny Kariotakis of Montreal. The day care owner said he got goosebumps watching the liftoff with thousands along U.S. 1 in Titusville, about 10 miles away.

Just before launching, Kelly thanked all those who put hands “on this incredible ship.”

“It is in the DNA of our great country to reach for the stars and explore. We must not stop,” he said.

Endeavour and its experienced crew of five Americans and an Italian are headed for the International Space Station. They will arrive at the orbiting outpost Wednesday, delivering a $2 billion magnetic instrument that will seek out antimatter and dark energy in the universe.

On Tuesday, they will check their ship for any launch damage to Endeavour’s thermal shield. Only a couple of small bits of insulating foam came off the fuel tank during the crucial phase of liftoff, officials said.

It was a trip that Kelly almost didn’t make.

The Navy captain, 47, took a leave from training to be by his wife’s side after she was wounded in the Jan. 8 shooting. But Giffords improved and after two weeks in intensive care in Tucson, she was moved to Houston where Kelly lives and trains.

Her days were filled with rehab, and he yearned to see the shuttle mission through. A month after the shooting, he announced he would fly, saying he expected his wife to be well enough to be at the launch.

And she was. But electrical trouble grounded the shuttle on April 29. Hordes of visitors had gathered, including President Barack Obama and his family.

Repairs took care of the problem, and Giffords made a return visit to Florida to see Kelly off. He bid her goodbye at the exclusive beachfront house the crew uses before launch. It’s the third time she’s seen her husband soar into space — in 2006, the year before they were married, and again in 2008.

“Who would have thought four and a half months ago that this would have been possible?” said Ron Barber, Giffords’ district director who was shot in the face and thigh during the shooting. He went to the launch attempt two weeks ago but watched Monday from home in Tucson.

“I would say that this shows her resilience. I have known her for many years. She is determined,” he said.

Giffords watched in private — as do all the astronauts’ families. She has been shielded from public view since the shooting. The only photograph provided Monday showed her red tulips with the single long-stemmed red rose for each of Kelly’s two teenage daughters from a previous marriage.

“She understands, if not everything, close to everything. There’s hardly a moment that we have where we feel that she’s not quite grasping,” Carusone told reporters.

The next medical hurdle is the replacement of part of Giffords’ skull that was removed in an emergency operation after the shooting to relieve swelling, Carusone said. Giffords returned to Houston and rehab hours after the launch.

During the 16-day mission, Giffords will provide two wake-up songs dedicated to Kelly and she will talk to him in a video conference.

This is the 25th and final flight of Endeavour, the baby of NASA’s shuttle fleet. It was built to replace Challenger, destroyed during liftoff 25 years ago this past January, and made its maiden journey six years later to capture and repair a stranded satellite. That first flight ended 19 years ago Monday.

Endeavour carried the first Hubble Space Telescope repair team, which famously restored the observatory’s vision in 1993, and the first American piece of the space station in 1998.

It will end its days at the California Science Center in Los Angeles. NASA’s last shuttle flight, by Atlantis, is targeted for July.

American astronauts, meanwhile, will continue to hitch rides to the space station on Russian Soyuz rockets. Private companies hope to pick up the slack, but that’s still years away. The White House wants NASA focusing on eventual expeditions to asteroids and Mars.

On Monday, spectators packed area roads and towns to see Endeavour soar one last time, although the turnout was larger for Discovery’s last hurrah in February on a Friday afternoon. Titusville Assistant Police Chief John Lau guessed the crowd at between 350,000 and 400,000.

Ohioan Stan Oliver made a last-minute trip and slept in his car in Titusville to catch the launch.

“This is a once in a lifetime event,” he said. “It was worth it. The roar was intense. I’m glad I came.”


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End of an era as Vegas casino closes

LAS VEGAS, Nevada (AFP) – Las Vegas marks the end of an era this week as one of the US gambling mecca’s last original “Rat Pack” casino-hotels, the Sahara, finally closes its doors.

Opened in 1952, the Sahara hosted everyone from Elvis Presley and Jerry Lewis to Frank Sinatra and the Beatles in the 1950s and 60s, and their photos still decorate the walls above the reception.

But in recent decades Vegas saw an explosion of mega-sized casino resorts which left the “small” Sahara struggling to fill its 1,700 rooms at the end of the famous Strip.

The death knell was sounded in March, when its owners since 2007, SBE Entertainment, announced that the casino-hotel complex with its more than 1,050 staff was no longer a viable business.

“In a way it was a surprise, but in a way it wasn’t,” Michael McLendon, a supervisor in the casino’s poker room — already deserted ahead of Monday’s final day — told AFP.

“The way things were going, with the economy and all, we felt something was happening. We just didn’t know what it was,” he said. “I’m retiring. I’m done. There are not too many people out there looking for a 66 year-old anyway.”

And with hard times hitting Vegas even harder than most US cities, the prospect of finding other jobs is not good.

“Some dealers here, just like porters, bartenders, cocktail waitresses, they found other jobs. But the majority didn’t, because it’s not a good time, now in Las Vegas, because of the economy,” said McLendon.

Sheryl Reed, a waitress in the Nascar Cafe for 11 years, hasn’t found anything. “It sucks ..You have to be in your 20s to work in Vegas, now. I left applications, they say they’ll call you, but they never call,” she said.

Dennis Carade, a front desk clerk for 39 years, has also chosen to retire. “I was offered a job in the Aria because a friend of mine works there,” he said, referring to another Vegas casino.

“But you know, I’ve been in this business for 50 years, time’s up,” he said, recounting anecdotes about Elvis and Clint Eastwood — who made “The Gauntlet” here in 1977.

He also doesn’t mince his words about the Sahara’s latest owners.

“These are the worst we’ve ever had. They came in here from California and they are very arrogant. It took them about three and half years to take this hotel right down to the ground,” he said.

“These people should be ashamed to themselves,” he added.

The management of SBE Entertainment declined to make any comment.

Far from its “Rat Pack” glory days, the Sahara has been known in recent years for its dollar-a-go games and the 6-pound, 2 foot (2.7 kilo, 60 cm) burrito available in the Nascar Cafe, dubbed “The Bomb.”

But the hotel, with its Moroccan-style decor, its large Hollywood-style swimming pool and its ghosts — Sol Arenas, a cleaner for 20 years, says she saw a “frightening and diabolical presence” in the Tangiers tower — retained an outmoded charm which many will miss.

In the 1950s the “Rat Pack,” a group of actors led by Sinatra but also including Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr., appeared in numerous Vegas shows and several films, including the original “Ocean’s Eleven.”

For French retirees and Strip habitues Brigitte and Daniel Quentin, who have already seen the demise of the Dunes, Stardust, New Frontier and Sands, the end of the Sahara is another body blow.

“We’ve stayed here several times and it is distressing,” said Brigitte. “We knew our machines and the staff. It was a hotel with a human dimension, it had warmth.”

It is a view shared by Tracy Reed, a Californian who has visited the Sahara four or five times a year for 15 years.

“It was like home. The other hotels are way too big. There’s no contact, you can’t meet people, get to know them. And here you got to know the employees, they got to know you by name, it’s just very homey,” she said.

In his little tattoo parlour, opposite the reception, Eric Ayala also voiced the hotel staff’s emotional attachment to the hotel.

“This morning, we just got an employee who wanted a tattoo of the coin of the casino on his arm. He was sad, you know, he’s been working here all his life”.


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Johnny Depp

I saw this display at Hot Topic when I was there earlier with my son, so yep I had to snap a picture of it.

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What Not to Buy at Ikea

Ikea offers sleek, modern design at such reasonable prices it’s no wonder that the average customer in the United States drives 50 miles round trip to shop the inspiration rooms (and inevitably dine at the equally impressive smorgasbord of cafeteria food). While we’re huge fans of the Scandinavian design behemoth’strendy home accentschic wall art, graphic rugs, and highly functional accent furniture, there are certain things not worth the trip. Here are five items you’d be wise to re-think:

1.    Mattresses

When it comes to mattresses, the saying you get what you pay for rings true. And because getting consistent good nights’ sleeps is crucial for your health, opting for a quality mattress is a wise investment. Ikea offers mattresses at a price range from $80 for a simple, twin-sized spring mattress to $649 for a king-size foam mattress. While the latter promises pressure-relieving and temperature-stabilizing technology at a seemingly reasonable price, the price structure is a bit misleading. To walk away from Ikea with a complete bed set, you’d have to purchase three more items:  A bed base, foundation, and at least one mattress pad, adding almost $500 more to your total cost. What seems like a good deal on the surface, actually turns out to be what you’d be spend  for a full set at any other mattress retailer, such as Mancini’s Sleep World or Sleep Train. Furthermore, you don’t get the free delivery and set-up or the ability to negotiate payment plans like you would at most mattress-specific retailers, which are constantly offering promotions and deals in an effort to stay competitive.

2.    Imitation Wood Products You’ll Use Every Day
Ikea is full of products that look like wood but are actually made of laminate or pressed wood—or wood particles glued together. These pieces are generally of lower quality and won’t last as long as the real thing. While purchasing accent furniture or bookshelves in this material might serve you well, you might find yourself replacing that laminate coffee or dining table within a year as the daily use will cause the laminate to peal away at the edges or become stained or scratched.

3.    Dinnerware
If you’re looking for a simple, no-frills dinner set, Ikea’s $25 set of six plates, side plates, and bowls, might fit your needs. But you’d be able to find a similar set at Target or other retailers for the same price. And if you’d like your flatware to make a bit more of a statement, Ikea’s selection is lacking. While the Scandinavian purveyor offers more than enough ways to add flair to your pad at a reasonable price, their specialty is not stylish flatware. We recommend filling your Ikea cart with tabletop accents or fabulous wall decals, but scooping up china flatware when department stores like Macy’s offer sales because you’ll have much more inventory to choose from.

4.    Quality Cutlery
Any professional chef or avid home cook will tell you that a quality set of knives is essential. And unfortunately, quality requires investment. There’s no way the $10 set Ikea offers will provide the ease, precision, longevity, or efficiency that a professional knife set promises.
5.    Things with Complicated Assembly Instructions
Unless you’re a natural handyman (or know someone who is) or simply must have that bookshelf that comes in a gazillion pieces, be wary of some of the items that require a huge amount of DIY assembly.  Purchasing a fully-formed bookshelf elsewhere for a bit more might be worth what you save in time and sanity.


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